Uncanny Vowelly



This video has been doing the rounds over the last couple of weeks.* The good people at Speculative Grammarian brought it to my attention on Twitter, and after watching it in fascination several times, I went looking for more information. The bizarre device is obviously a mechanical model of human speech organs, but my hunch that it is used in phonetic research was a little off the mark. It is, in a sense, but this is not its primary purpose.

The apparatus, called a Robotic Voice Simulator, was designed by engineers at Kagawa University in Japan to help hearing-impaired people improve their vocalisation skills. Popular Science has a short article with the splendid headline “Moaning Rubber Robot Mouth Simulates Human Voices, Fuels Our Human Nightmares”. The simulator certainly has a creepy quality, but its potential to provoke wonder and even giggles should not be overlooked.

Some people discussing it have referred to the Uncanny Valley, a hypothetical psychological phenomenon (and an old pet interest) which probably didn’t pose a problem with mechanical speaking machines throughout history, but which is becoming more and more relevant especially in robotics, owing to the increasing sophistication of modelling, both digital and mechanical.

Training of speech articulation using a Robotic Voice Simulator

The video broached my radar only recently, but the people responsible for the simulator — Hideyuki Sawada, Mitsuki Kitani, and Yasumori Hayashi — had their work published in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology more than two years ago. Their paper, “A Robotic Voice Simulator and the Interactive Training for Hearing-Impaired People”, is available here. Its English is slightly awkward, but it’s readable and very interesting. The authors describe the development of a “talking and singing robot which adaptively learns the vocalization skill by means of an auditory feedback learning” (my emphasis).

The device’s structure consists mainly of “an air pump, artificial vocal cords, a resonance tube, a nasal cavity, and a microphone connected to a sound analyser”; these parts achieve a rough structural correspondence with human vocal organs. The simulator “listens” to subjects and maps their vocalisation with the help of an “auditory feedback learning algorithm”. Comparing this with normal speech allows for interactive mimicry-based training, which in some cases leads to an improvement in articulation.

PopSci concludes:

It’s also worth noting that the original source mentions that the robot can sing as well as speak. Now if only the kind folks at Kagawa University would release that video already.

Duly seconded. Remixes are already appearing on YouTube, but they don’t come straight from the robot’s mouth. I want to hear that intense metallo-nasal moan bring sweet melodies to life.


* I’ve embedded a little-watched version and ignored the two popular uploads, because these latter contain on-screen links and intrusive speech balloons.

6 Responses to Uncanny Vowelly

  1. Fascinating stuff! That video, with the disembodied mouth bleating, is like something out of a horror film…

  2. Stan says:

    Doubtful: It is a little unnerving all right. I suspect, though, that its creepiness is heavily dependent on context, and that using it regularly for medical or educational reasons would quickly reduce its capacity to horrify. It would make a fine toy.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Interesting reading, Stan but Dialup Dementia bars video exploration until I get back to civilization.

  4. Laura Payne says:

    Hello Fellow Language Lovers,

    I wanted to let you know that I have included your blog on a list of ten blogs that I think are worth visiting and I am awarding you with a “Vale a pena ficar de olho nesse blog” stamp.

    I received this award from another language blogger and part of the acceptance process asks that the recipient post the award picture with a link to the blog from whom the award was received and to add links to ten additional worthy blogs.

    I truly enjoy reading each of your educational and entertaining blogs.

    A Walk in the WoRds

  5. Stan says:

    WWW: It’s a pity there isn’t a low-resolution video option for viewers in Dial-up Dementia.

    Laura: Thank you for the honour. Your list puts me in distinguished company!

  6. […] And, as we’ve seen, vowels can emerge not just from flesh and blood but from silicone, plaster, metal, and sheer ingenuity. […]

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